That’s the Spirit

Those calling for a spiritual awakening are marching into enemy territory: the world of business. But what happens when a corporation’s soul clashes with its bottom line?

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When the Green Bay Packers won the 1997 Super Bowl, it was a triumph of soul. The Packers are deeply rooted in the Wisconsin city where they were founded in 1919. They were named after a local meat processing plant, the Indian Packing Company, which paid for the first uniforms. Starting in the 1920s, the Green Bay Football Corp. made a series of public stock offerings. In 1950, 1,900 local residents each put up $25 a share to buy the team. They and their descendants remain the owners. No one owns more than 200 shares of Packers stock. And it pays no dividends — every cent goes back to the team in pay or toward the improvement of facilities. The result is a community — and team — spirit unmatched in any other National Football League city. That’s why Packer players who score touchdowns leap into the stands to embrace spectators. That’s why fans at Lambeau Field sing “Amazing Grace” during time-outs. That’s why, as Bruce Adams of the San Francisco Examiner wrote last year, “a group of nuns 75 miles away in Fond du Lac prays for the Packers on Sunday morning and then settles down in front of a television set to watch the game.”

It’s also one reason why a team from the small northern town of Green Bay could beat all the big, bankrolled teams from New York to Los Angeles — the Packers have soul.

Now, soul is in. The San Francisco Chronicle recently called it the “buzzword of the ’90s,” in a headline for a front-page story reporting that some 322 citations for the word appear in the current edition of Books in Print. That’s nearly four times the number in 1990. The notion has even permeated TV ads. Millions of viewers were exposed late last year to Nissan Motor’s gaudy commercials introducing the 1997 Infiniti Q45 luxury automobile with the slogan “Everything changes but the soul.” And this year Ford Motor is touting its top-of-the-line Lincoln Continental as a car that “gets into your soul, not your pocket.”

So it may not be surprising that forces calling for an awakening of spirituality are now marching into enemy territory: the business world. If anything could be considered antithetical to soulfulness, it’s humdrum, buttoned-up, make-a-buck commerce. Witness the long line of business villains in literature, theater, and film. (Just revisit Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.)

But today, a particular malaise — a sense that business crushes the spirit and compels workers to suppress feelings — has become an opportunity for the spirituality gurus, who propose to bring soul into the workplace.

There was a time when this effort focused on turning companies into more socially responsible corporate citizens. The movement arose from the civil rights struggles and counterculture of the 1960s, and it eventually spawned a new crop of companies (Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s of Maine, Odwalla, Stonyfield Yogurt, Just Desserts, Aveda, the Body Shop) and a new group of organizations (the Social Venture Network, Business for Social Responsibility, Students for Responsible Business, the Social Investment Forum) dedicated to moving corporations along a path of social responsibility.

This new endeavor, however, takes a different tack. It strikes me as being more about personal transformation than corporate transformation. It is a call for people not to sacrifice their souls for the corporation: They are urged to bring their whole beings into the workplace and express their innermost thoughts. By so doing, of course, they might well change the way business is conducted. But the literature I have seen and the talks I have heard are very short on prescriptive changes for business. (Perhaps an agenda will develop from the formation of the Conscious Business Alliance, a new Minneapolis-based group whose mission is “to explore the myriad ways in which the business community can enrich and be enriched by the human spirit.”)

What is one to make of all this? First of all, it’s a new variant on an old theme. The hunger that people feel today for cohesion, for some sense of belonging, for purpose — a hunger reflected in the booming sales of books by psychotherapist Thomas Moore and psychologist James Hillman — has long been a byproduct of modern industrial civilization. Business has always had a bad name among moralists, and efforts to reform it go back a long way. Christ gave only one piece of advice to merchants: to abandon their work and follow him. Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance largely regarded business activity as “beyond the moral pale,” according to David Vogel, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Only with the Reformation did the West find theological sanction for the workaday world, as the Protestant ethic accorded the market a place of grace.

More recently, Marxist critics brought a different theology to labor and commerce, advocating an overthrow of capitalism. But this idea has been discredited, and certainly none of the new reformers seeks to dismantle the commercial order — they just want to open the halls of commerce to spirituality.

Most of the people I talk to, however, are skeptical about the movement’s chances. They see business still cleaving to the profit motive above all else. In a symposium on “African-American Art and Its Audience,” held last fall at Washington University in St. Louis, Tricia Rose, an assistant professor at New York University, stated: “Corporations don’t have a vision for society, except for a profitable space for them to operate in as freely as possible. They don’t have a value system. They pretend to, when they get pressure. But they don’t really have a value system.”

The views expressed by certain captains of commerce confirm Rose’s cynicism. In an interview in the October 1996 issue of Fortune magazine, Don Tyson, the head of the Arkansas company that ranks as the nation’s largest chicken supplier, said: “If it makes money, we expand it. If it doesn’t, we cut its throat.” In the same issue, the magazine reported that Doug Ivester, the president of Coca-Cola, tells his managers to follow the words of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc: “What do you do when your competitor is drowning? Get a live hose and stick it in his mouth.” Now those are some authentic voices of business. And mind you, Coca-Cola has just signed up as a member of Business for Social Responsibility.

For five years now I have carried around in my head an observation made by Alan Parker, who is director of investor relations for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In an article I asked him to contribute to the 20th anniversary edition of the quarterly Business and Society Review, Parker wrote: “There is a saying in favor among ‘New Age’ caring capitalists that ‘business is the most powerful force in society.’ They mean that business, by joining creativity and money, can create tremendous positive change in our world. If business is the most powerful force in society, how come a Bach cantata can move us to tears, but a healthy balance sheet cannot?”

I recently asked Parker if he thought it was possible for business to have a soul. “Business pressures will put a strain on the soul,” he says, “but it’s still possible to preserve it. If people bring their souls to business, it will have a soul.”

I put the same question to John Mackey, the CEO of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, the nation’s largest operator of natural food stores. “Businesspeople shy away from talking about this responsibility because they don’t want to be considered nonserious,” he says. “They want to appear tough-minded. But business does have a higher purpose, a deeper purpose than making a profit. Making a profit is like breathing. You need to breathe to live. But we have a purpose connected to products, people, community, the environment, stakeholders.”

Mackey quickly adds, however, that corporate spirit is inseparable from corporeal health. “Even if you have a soul, a spirit, that doesn’t mean you will be safe from turns in the marketplace. You can have a certain essence, a reality that is greater than the bottom line, but that does not make you invulnerable to change.”

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company based in Ventura, California, may well be the most environmentally conscious company in the land, and it has exemplary family-friendly policies such as on-site childcare and eight-week paid leaves for new parents. “We definitely have soul as a company, but we don’t tend to be explicit about it,” CEO David Olsen says. “And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain if we were not a privately held company.” Olsen points out that at Patagonia soul manifests itself in a number of ways — a belief that “sacred places” exist in nature and need protection; rigorous field audits of overseas plants to ensure that workers are not being abused; and mindfulness about environmental degradation that has resulted in the company using organic cotton to make its garments.

“We are not driven to look for commercial success,” he explains. “We try to create value, and we feel that if you make value, you will be rewarded.” To Olsen, that’s soul.

Denis Hayes, a lawyer who organized the first Earth Day and is now president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, has a markedly different take on the question. “Since the courts have decided that corporations are ‘persons’ and possessed of the legal and constitutional rights of persons, and since this has wreaked all sorts of havoc in the legal system, it would be gratifying to believe that these ‘persons’ also had souls and that the worst of them would be damned to eternal perdition,” he says. “However, since we don’t even know how to send a corporation to prison, it’s hard to know how they might be delivered to Satan.”

That said, Hayes uses the extension of legal individuality to flesh out a definition: “If you think of the soul as the repository of values, ideas, and character, I think you can build a case that many corporations have integrated ‘souls,’ and that those that don’t are, like many people, a little dysfunctional.” He adds, “I think some companies — especially small, privately held, relatively young companies — attract people who share basic values, and create climates in which those who may not share the values still act as though they do when acting on behalf of the company.”

At one level, Hayes says, corporate soul may just constitute the projected personalities of a company’s “dominant people.” The question is whether that projected identity has enough strength to support decisions based on conscience, untethered from financial imperatives. “I wonder,” he says, “whether the socially responsible company is like the deeply moral individual — admirable but doomed by its context to fall short of true greatness in a temporal world that extols one set of characteristics but rewards a different set. The old Apple had soul; Microsoft has always run on raw ambition. Is social responsibility the opiate of second-tier companies?”

In the end, I think, most corporate changes have occurred at the margin, and companies continue to sell their souls to the devil to make their numbers. This is especially true if your company is publicly held, with shares traded every day on the stock market. John Mackey calls Wall Street security analysts, with their short-term outlook, “the high priests of materialism.” But even soulful companies are at risk from the prevailing ethos.

In 1984, when Robert Levering and I published The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, we listed 10 companies with a no-layoffs policy. Today, only two of those companies — Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, and Worthington Industries in Columbus, Ohio — offer this kind of job security.

Even the most caring companies can sometimes lay off workers in a harsh manner. Herman Miller, the western Michigan furniture maker, has long had a reputation for treating its employees well, thanks in great measure to the De Pree family, which founded the company. Max De Pree, son of the founder, set down the company’s egalitarian humanism in his 1987 book Leadership Is an Art, wherein he spelled out the importance of “covenantal relationships.” De Pree wrote that “words such as love, warmth, [and] personal chemistry” are relevant to the operation of a company. I remember seeing meetings at Herman Miller being opened with a prayer. They still do this at the annual meeting, but the past five years have bruised the company’s spirit. A new CEO has come and gone. Profits have slumped, and in 1995 the company laid off 160 people out of a workforce of 6,500 — brusquely and impersonally. It was a direct contradiction of De Pree’s philosophy — and, in fact, the company now concedes that it botched that downsizing. The managers who were in charge of it are no longer with Herman Miller, and the company’s new CEO, Michael A. Volkema, has reaffirmed the company’s values. “Furniture is simply a way to support our families,” he says.

Tough times will always try a company’s soul. Elliot Hoffman, co-founder of the Just Desserts bakery company in San Francisco, has been wrestling with this problem for the past few years. If any company has soul, it’s Just Desserts, reflected in its strong commitment to employees and the community. It has received national attention for its affiliation with the Garden Project, which employs ex-prisoners to grow vegetables. But the company has faced a financial crunch, provoked partially by the rise of the Starbucks coffee chain. Two years ago, in a talk at a Social Venture Network conference, Hoffman reported that the venture capital people he had met with, including those with an alleged interest in social responsibility, didn’t see “human returns” as part of the return on investment. “Are there investors out there who value the importance of multiple returns,” he asked, “a multiple bottom line that includes human, community, and social returns?”

We would all like for a workplace to embrace such concerns. That’s a business with soul. But soul may not last, even in a company with a conscience. In 1985, I addressed a meeting of salespersons at Digital Equipment Corp., and I was impressed that the session opened with taped excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving address at the March on Washington in 1963. That certainly revved up the troops, but it didn’t help the company’s management escape miscalculations on the future of the computer industry. Digital’s workforce has gone from more than 120,000 down to 51,000, and its stock has dropped from an all-time high of $199 to its current price of $31. The fact is, in business, when you are doing well, it’s easy to persuade yourself that soul is a component of your operations.

Undoubtedly, businesspeople would be uncomfortable with the intrusion of spirituality into discussions of ongoing business operations. Soul is not part of the language of business. There is no entry for it on the balance sheet. And it will take little short of a miracle from above to have business executives recognize the existence of soul. Of course, if they could be convinced that it does help the bottom line, they would quickly embrace it. But that’s not what soul is about.


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